Holy Week: On Suffering, Friendship & the Indispensable Body of Christ

Holy Week: On Suffering, Friendship & the Indispensable Body of Christ April 14, 2014


“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body.”

– 1 Corinthians 12:12-13

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”

– John 15:5

Last Sunday morning, like so many others, my family found ourselves in the narthex of our church. Arriving early to grab a pew, we had thoughtlessly forgotten that, today, there would be no early seats taken. The sanctuary doors were closed and sealed with large red ribbons. Instead, we found ourselves standing in the adjoining gym/fellowship hall, grasping palms (earnestly endeavoring to keep our four year-old’s palm out of other people’s eyes) and listening to the Gospel for Palm Sunday.

“The disciples went and did as Jesus had ordered them.
They brought the ass and the colt and laid their cloaks over them, 
and he sat upon them.
The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, 
while others cut branches from the trees 
and strewed them on the road.
The crowds preceding him and those following
kept crying out and saying:
‘Hosanna to the Son of David;
blessed is the he who comes in the name of the Lord;
hosanna in the highest.’
And when he entered Jerusalem 
the whole city was shaken and asked, ‘Who is this?’
And the crowds replied, 
‘This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.’”

– Matthew 21: 7-11

With that, the choir began to sing and the masses of palm-wielding faithful fell in line – a processional – behind an altar boy carrying a staff with the Crucified Christ. No longer solitary, we became One. The Christ our Head followed by We, the Body. And do you know what? We all found a seat.

Finding oneself immersed in Holy Week is an extraordinary experience. The dizzying heights to which we rise with Palm Sunday’s great public acknowledgement of the Kingship of Christ is countered mere days later by the suffocating depths of Good Friday’s Passion and Murder of Christ. In between we experience unspeakable drama in the anointing of Christ, the washing of the disciples’ feet, the Last Supper, the agony in the Garden, the trial and the betrayal of Christ by his greatest and least disciples. And, properly experienced, we encounter it as the Body of Christ. We are His followers joyfully waving palms. We are disciples washing each others’ feet. We are supplicants approaching the Eucharist. And we are sinners who, in spite of ourselves, find ourselves bellowing, “Crucify Him!” or whispering, “I tell you I don’t know the man.” Holy Week finds us – stained, yet dignified, imperfect, yet redeemable – approaching Jesus Christ in muted awe of a Grace we could never truly earn. And we do it as a Body.

Alister McGrath recently wrote a book, If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis, with two chapters which intentionally (or inadvertently) spoke to me on the Indispensable Body of Christ. The chapters deal with friendship and suffering respectively. First, on friendship, McGrath highlights the value of friendship in Lewis’ life. Strong attachments to his older brother, a neighbor boy, a college friend, and ultimately fellow Oxford instructors and writing enthusiasts were foundational in making C.S. Lewis into the person he would become. But friendship wasn’t simply companionship and superficial frivolity. It attended to the deepest of matters. It was forged by fires of criticism and growth, empathy and accountability. True friendship brought you to a place that wasn’t always uncontroversial or easy to get to – a “better and more faithful you”. McGrath points out that true friendship begins with familiarity and respect, grows as a community devoted to similar interests and causes, sustains itself with honest support and criticism, and avoids the pitfalls of elitism and arrogant self-promotion. It is imperfect, but always striving. Friendship is a body. Friendship is not isolation. As C.S. Lewis once reflected,

“‘Do you love me?’ means ‘Do you see the same truth?’ – or at least, ‘Do you care about the same truth?’ The man who agrees with us that some question, little regarded by others, is of great importance, can be our friend.”

The other side of the coin of friendship is suffering. This was the focus of another of McGrath’s chapters. C.S. Lewis understood suffering enduring the painful and premature death of his cancer-stricken mother, the carnage of World War I with the loss of a dear friend in the battle, the death of a friend’s mother and, ultimately, the loss of his wife. Lewis struggled with “the problem of pain” in the midst of a God-filled universe. As he personally experienced loss, his pat theories and antiseptic notions (well, but cooly framed in The Problem of Pain) gave way to an openness to raw emotion, mystery and hard-earned faith (painfully described in A Grief Observed). Suffering seemed a cruel teacher. Yet, to be loved by our God is to be changed into something better by our God, even if that change is painful. As Lewis warned,

“You asked for a loving God: you have one.”

The Catholic author Flannery O’Connor would agree,

“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”

But, you may ask, what does friendship and suffering have to do with The Body of Christ? If you look closely at Lewis’ suffering, so much of it is associated with separation and loss. To be dislocated or isolated from one person or many, from one form of communion or another, is to experience a pain that aches and yearns for reunion. Friendship, on the other hand, is to join, to unite, to commune deeply. It is to leave off isolation with a sigh and to find ourselves at rest in the arms of a brother or sister.

The Body of Christ is this, and yet so much more. Populated with innumerable people from diverse backgrounds and with limitless strengths, it moves beyond friendship through its infusion with the mystical power of the Holy Spirit. Simultaneously, it endures suffering acutely, but is stronger standing on the bedrock of God. The sum of the Body of Christ is greater than its parts and yet each of its parts become something greater as well. The branches of the Vine wondrously bear fruit they would never have borne independently.

God loves us and wants us to be part of the Body of Christ. He wants to transform us from our sinful selves into saints. And yet this is painful. Yet worth it. During Holy Week, it is a perfect time to reflect on the sufferings of our Lord, to consider the suffering asked of us, to wave palms and to weep. Yes. It is a perfect time. And it is a perfect place. And we are to do this as part of the Indispensable Body of Christ.

If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis is a feature of the Patheos Book Club. Please click here for more conversation, to read an excerpt and an interview with the author.

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